After exit polls predicted a close fight between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party in Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan confidently claimed that his party would win the state with a comfortable margin. The voters proved him wrong. As the counting started on Tuesday, the Congress was locked in a ding-dong battle with the saffron party as the contest went down to the wire.

By 7.30 am on Wednesday, the result for one seat in the 230-member house was yet to be declared. The Congress has won 113 seats and was leading in one, which would put it just short of the 116 majority mark. The BJP was close behind with 109 seats. The Bahujan Samaj had two, the Samajwadi Party one and independents won four seats.

In the late night drama, Congress state president Kamal Nath sent a letter to Govenor Anandaniben Patel seeking an appointment to stake claim to form the government. “The Congress party has emerged as the single-largest party with majority support,” he wrote. “All the independents have in addition assured support to the Congress party.”

However, Patel told Nath that she would wait for the Election Commission to declare the final results before making a decision, India Today TV reported. Even before the final results were announced, independent candidates, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party seemed likely to come to the Congress’s support in its effort to cross the majority figure of 116.

A popular chief minister

Looking for a fourth consecutive term, Chouhan had hoped that his image as a humble and approachable chief minister would yet again help the BJP win the state. But that was not to be. Unlike Vasundhara Raje, who is being blamed for the BJP’s defeat in Rajasthan, Chouhan didn’t have much going against him except the fatigue that had set in amongst voters after 15 years of BJP rule.

Voters across the state praised Mama, as the chief minister is fondly referred to, for his pro-poor schemes and humble persona but blamed his partymen and MLAs for alienating the common man and doling out perks to their cronies. During the campaign, many voters spoke admiringly about how Chouhan had transformed the state during his 13 year tenure.

However, voters seemed to had made their mind, considering that badlaav (change) was the central theme of these elections. However, credit has to be given to Chouhan for still putting up a brave fight despite the odds. Despite the host of welfare schemes announced by the chief minister, the voters had grown disenchanted about decisions that had nothing to do with him or his government.

The chief minister had to bear the brunt of Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s ill-conceived move of demonetisation in November 2016 and the messy implementation of the Goods and Services Tax in July 2017. The impact of these policies is still being felt across the state. These moves brought the rural economy on its knees, which played a major role in the BJP’s slide.

Rural distress

Despite Shivraj winning the Union government’s prestigious Krishi Karman award for five consecutive consecutive years till 2017, the state’s farmers failed to even recover the cost of production for their crops. These awards are conferred on states that excel in grain production and Madhya Pradesh has established itself among the country’s leading producers of food grains and pulses.

Repeated bumper crop production became a bane for the farmers in the state and with little support from the central government, Chouhan had to face a farmers’ agitation, eventually leding to six farmers being killed in police firing in Mandsaur in 2017. Mandsaur became the epicentre of nation-wide farmer protest and Congress eventually found an opportunity to corner the Chouhan government, which till then looked invincible.

The Mandsaur agitation gave farmers from other parts of the state an opportunity to vent their anger too. This led to the state government announcing the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, a programme in which the government would pay the difference between the market price and the Minimum Support Price, which represents a promise from the Centre that it will step in and buy certain crops if their market prices fall below a certain level. The Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana soon it ran into trouble, with farmers alleging that only big farmers and traders benefited from it.

In addition, the unemployment crisis added to Chouhan’s woes. This was reflected by the fact that unemployment-related suicides increased 20 times between 2005 and 2015, journalist Rasheed Kidwai wrote, citing a report by the Madhya Pradesh-based Berozgar Sena (Army of Unemployed), a voluntary outfit fighting unemployment. Moreover, there was upper-caste anger against Chouhan after his statement in Feburary that “no one can dare end reservation”.

However, during the campaign, voters would often note that this election was more about an ant-BJP sentiment rather than a pro-Congress wave. The only thing that seems to have worked for the Congress is that the party managed to curb factionalism within its state unit. In fact, Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday emphasised to reports that the party benefited by working together as a cohesive unit. “In these states, we ironed out differences and the party benefited from that,” Gandhi said.

Chief ministerial choice

Meanwhile, the next big task for Congress, if it manages to get the required numbers, will be to name its chief minister candidate. Divided into three groups led by Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Congress president would have to make a calculated decision to avoid upsetting any of these groups and to ensure that the chosen one appeals to all sections in the party.

In addition, Congress will have to get allies on board to ensure it has the numbers on its side. The party will have to keep its flock together and ensure that those from elected representatives from parties like Bahujan Samaj Party, Gondwana Gantantra Party, Samajwadi Party and Independents join its ranks to form a stable government.

While none of these parties have officially made any announcements, it is likely that they will join hands with the Congress, considering they all fought the elections on secularism plank. Congress will have to make a quick move to ensure these legislators are by its side to avoid embarrassing situations like Goa and Manipur, where it lost out to BJP despite emerging as the single-largest party.